Learn to study human behavior in-situ. Use your powers of observation to understand what experiences make people happy, and where the pain points are.
” An ethnographer is a person who gathers and records data about human culture and societies. There are various research methods that can be applied to the different sub-categories of this social study, such as field, design or visual ethnography. An ethnographer often needs to be able to find patterns in and understand issues faced by a wide sample of people with diverse backgrounds.”
What it is.
Design ethnography is a user-centered research method product designers use to understand user experiences. Unlike interviews and surveys, the designer observes people doing their normal activities (like using a piece of software or buying a cup of coffee) and discusses their experiences with them.
How it’s used.
Ethnography is a way to observe and learn. Ethnographers watch how people interact with each other, places, and things. We look for confusion, hesitancy, social anxiety, and other pain points that are the cause of a bad user experience. We’re looking for the problems we need to fix, and then we figure out how to fix them.
My primary and favorite type of user research is the contextual inquiry, or design ethnography. It’s not because I majored in anthropology in college and this gives me a chance to use my expensive but otherwise completely useless degree. (Really, it’s not.) It’s because by observing people working at their jobs, or struggling with a bad customer experience, or fighting their way through an online shopping cart I can discover an abundance of data that I might not otherwise have know. Data I can use to fix these real world problems and improve products.
What people say and what they say they do are entirely different things
While surveys work great for reaching a ton of people, they’re not nearly as good as watching and asking questions in-situ. Focus groups and interviews may be more convenient for the researcher, but as the preeminent anthropologist Margaret Meade taught us: People don’t always do what they say they do.
But how can that be? Surely people know what they do, why wouldn’t they tell the honest researcher who’s just trying to improve their experience? It’s not because they’re lying (usually) it’s because they’re not paying attention.
You might actually love the coffee
Imagine your colleague tells you he doesn’t like a certain brand of coffee shop. He says it’s because he doesn’t like the quality of the coffee. He might believe he doesn’t like the quality of the coffee. But the truth could be entirely different.
He might have had a bad experience when ordering and paying for the coffee. Or the clerk might have treated him rudely. Maybe he couldn’t figure out how to order the coffee he likes because the menu was confusing and there were impatient customers standing behind him. Any one or all of these would leave a bad feeling about that coffee shop in the mind of your friend, but how he remembers it is that he doesn’t like the coffee.
If you’re tasked with designing a better coffee shop experience and you take him at his word, you might spend a lot of time improving the quality of the cup of coffee with no improvement in customer satisfaction.
Trust what you see, not what you’re told
Without observing people acting in real life situations, you’ll never understand what is actually wrong, and you’ll spend a lot of time fixing something that wasn’t broken to begin with.
Your task is first to figure out what are the true pain points. Second, fix them. Design ethnography helps you do that because you’re on the spot, watching people struggling, asking questions as they struggle, and getting to the truth of their dissatisfaction.